Today, short films — or “shorts” — are well and truly a genre of their own. Yet to create your own successful short film, there are a few cardinal rules you should never break. Unless, of course, you know exactly what you’re doing.
What Counts As a Short Film?
The old days of short film have passed. Back when shorts were predominantly comedic (see Charlie Chaplin or The Three Stooges), things were somewhat simpler.
According to IMDB, a short film is a moving picture less than 45 minutes in length. According to the American Motion Picture Academy, it’s more like 40 minutes. Of course, some shorts (especially European shorts) can be as short as one-minute long, but many directors and producers prefer the 15- or 30-minute time limit.
With this shorter length comes (generally) smaller budgets than feature length films (there are some incredible animated short films made with free software). Despite this reduced budget, however, the quality of a short can be used to testify to the director’s — and entire production team’s — competencies, thereby largely helping with career progression.
Over the past 20 years, shorts have usually been released at dedicated film festivals or art houses, but now, with access to technology and publishing platforms becoming ubiquitous, the floor is open for anyone to produce a short and release it directly (and potentially very successfully) to an audience via the Web.
This offers an incredible opportunity to budding film-makers. With people’s shortened attention span, along with the increased amount of time spent online, this means that short films are in the middle of a huge comeback.
Take the 15-minute long Power/Rangers Unauthorized Bootleg Universe short film above (contains cursing and nudity). This adaptation of the kids TV show into something more violent and sexual managed to reach tens of millions of views within a few months of its launch.
So when it comes to making your own successful short film, which mistakes should you be avoiding?
You Don’t Have a Specific Goal
The genres of short films are as numerous as feature length films, and within each of these genres are countless films attempting to achieve a very specific goal. It’s important here to note the difference between theme and goal. Themes describe what the story is about beyond the story itself while goals are concrete and within the story. Glen Strathy explains:
The story goal is what the protagonist wants to achieve, or the problem he/she wants to solve.
When it comes to short films, the time available to ensure your protagonist achieves their goal — their single dilemma — is severely limited. Therefore the goal must be concise, with everything within the film working toward that goal at a pace that keeps the viewers’ attention.
Take Emily in the short above. Her sole purpose throughout the entire animation is to get back home. Or this short film which heart-warmingly follows the sending of a single text.
As soon as your film veers from those goal-oriented tracks, Strathy says, “[Your] plot becomes just a haphazard series of events with no meaning or purpose”.
You’re Trying to Say Too Much
When you only have a small amount of time to achieve your goal, you will have to leave a lot unsaid. In the world of short stories, Hemingway was master at this. His six-word story is stuff of legend:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
You simply don’t have time for subplots, lengthy character development, or epic views of human nature. Sure, you can allude to them, but don’t go into them. In short films, the idiom less is more could not ring truer. Say one thing, say it economically, and say it well.
To illuminate this point, take the short film above: Hotel 22. This film refuses to take us on a complete tour of the history of this public-bus-turned-homeless-shelter. Instead, we are shown inside that shelter for one night only. No more, no less.
You’re Offering Nothing New
If you’re going to the effort of creating a short film, at least throw something new into the bag. A new story, idea, plot, style, or technique. There has to be something there that makes people sit up and take notice to distinguish your film from all the others out there. Don’t fall into any clichés.
On the other hand, don’t place style over substance. The best way to do this is to spend time watching as many shorts as you can — Vimeo is perfect for this, as is ShortOfTheWeek — and to study the craft and landscape of short films. Only then will you be able to see unique structures, styles, and angles that will help ensure that your short is memorable.
One such example of an original approach is Memoirs of a Scanner (above) in which we’re taken through a coherent plot, in just one minute, through the eyes of an office scanner.
Your Story Is Too Slow
Pacing in your short film is incredibly important, especially at the beginning. If your film doesn’t captivate the audience from the very beginning, it’ll be rejected — whether that audience is festival screeners or people on YouTube. If you can’t capture their attention from the very beginning, that’s game over.
Don’t waste those precious first seconds with entry credits and slow introductions. If there are shots that can be removed without affecting the story, remove them to keep up the pace — even if you love those shots. If you’re intentionally aiming for a theme that necessitates slowness, make it happen in the middle or end.
One exceptional example is the above short, Jumpers. In this film, the pace of the first scene is dictated by infuriated dialogue, layed over a very slow camera shot, which only adds to the fast-paced narrative that’s happening in the background. This narrative carries the entire show through to the end, without letting up once, leaving us as relieved as the protagonist that the whole ordeal is over.
You Aren’t Connecting Emotionally
Rather than trying to tackle a gargantuan theme, focus on something small that both you and your viewers will have a personal connection with. Pick an issue or dilemma that we’ve all felt, an idea that we’ve all had, and explore only that idea in your short film in a way that no one else has done before.
The short film above is a standard coming-of-age tale, but is unique in that it focuses on an imaginary friend who’s considering retirement when his creator and best friend reaches adolescence. This coming of age — and letting go of silly yet personal ideas — is something we can all relate to.
By picking a plot and theme that is personal, not only can you more easily connect with the audience, but you’ll ultimately produce a work that’s authentic and genuine.
You’re Putting Visuals Above Audio
Short films are largely a visual medium, and cutting corners on visual elements should not be something that comes lightly, whether that’s camera work, animation, CGI, or lighting. For many film-makers, the short film they’re working on may be the one piece in their portfolio that they rely on for future work, the one piece that gets across their own unique production style.
Sometimes, however, this is done at the expense of audio — and an otherwise incredible short film can be made insufferable when audio isn’t given its due attention.
Take the short film above, for instance. Anti-bullying videos abound, but this one is different. This is a silent film (no dialogue) overlayed with an emotional track played on piano. The effect of this audio (and lack thereof) on the audience is imperative to the film’s success.
This is exactly why film-making is a collaborative process. Achieving a high standard of audio is not easy. Find someone who’s experienced in this area to make sure the audio isn’t what lets your film down.
What Other Mistakes Should Be Avoided?
Of course, there are examples of short films that have broken some of these rules yet turned out to be exceptional. But unless you’re currently a world-class short film-maker with the experience to understand when and why to break the rules, these are a good place to start.
You should only ever break rules when you truly understand why they exist in the first place.
Which mistakes kill your enjoyment of short films? Know of any short films that have broken all of the rules yet still succeeded? Share with us in the comments below!